If you taking the time to learn more about nutrition and what you can do to eat right, one concept that you may have heard of before and are currently wondering about is carb loading. This is not a new concept as many athletes have been using it for quite some time. Done right, it can really help improve performance and help those training hard see success. Done wrong however and it will only lead to weight gain, not to mention a feeling of being very sluggish and fatigued.
Let’s go over the basic facts about carb loading along with who its best suited for so that you can clear up any confusion about this process.
What is Carb Loading
First let’s talk about what carb loading is. In essence, it’s as the name suggests – loading of carbohydrates into the diet. This concept relies on the fact that when doing intense, long duration activity, muscle glycogen is the primary fuel source being utilized. And, muscle glycogen is the storage of carbohydrates in the muscle cells. So it would only make sense then that the more carbohydrates you can drive into the muscle cells, the better your performance would be.
Think of it like trying to drive a sports car for optimal performance. That car will run best when you put premium fuel in the tank – which is like putting carbohydrates into your body. Now, if you want to be able to drive that car for as long as possible, if you could find a way to put one and a half tanks worth of gas in the car, you’d be even better off, right? That is what carb loading tries to achieve. When done properly, you can ensure that your body has reached maximum storage capacity for carbohydrates in the body, allowing for the best possible performance.
Who Carb Loading is best suited for
So who is carb loading best suited for? It’s not to be used by the average individual. As you simply go about your day to day life – even if you add in a workout here and there lasting 30-60 seconds a few times a week, you simply won’t be depleting muscle glycogen levels enough to need to carb load. On the flip side, if you are endurance athlete, say a marathon runner, a long distance cyclist, or you are an athlete playing sports who has a few games happening in one day, you will be relying much more heavily on the carbohydrates in your body. As such, carb loading can be far more beneficial for you. Carb loading is typically only done by those who plan on exercising for longer than an hour in a day – usually up to 2-5 hours in total.
Adding Carb Loading to your protocol
There are a few different ways that you can go about carb loading depending on your own personal preference. The first way, which does tend to be most effective is to have a depletion period prior to the carb loading period. The more depleted your body gets of its muscle glycogen storage, the more sensitive it will be to take any carbs you do eat up and store them as glycogen. If going this route, you would want to reduce your carbohydrate intake down to about 50-100 grams per day for 2-3 days prior to doing the carb loading. And you should note that carb loading should always occur 1-2 days prior to the big race/event you are planning for. As you reduce your carb intake back, focus on doing your workouts as normal. Note they will be more grueling on these days as you won’t have the normal fuel you otherwise would to help you get through them.
Then, after the depletion period is up, you’ll then want to start loading your carbs over the next 24 hour period. You’ll aim to take in about five to six grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight. So for a 150 pound individual, this would mean around 750-900 grams of carbs total or 3000-5400 calories worth (since there are four calories per gram). Spread this out over your 24 hours, making sure to also add your normal daily dose of protein in with it as well. The protein will help keep your blood sugar levels stable and ensure you aren’t experiencing energy high’s followed by crashes. Fat content however should be kept out of your diet to balance out the calorie intake and avoid excess fat gain. Note that you are not to be training on this day.
Good foods to eat include pasta, bagels, low fat muffins, rice, toast, English muffins, perogies, along with pancakes. Fruit can be consumed, but keep it in moderation. This is due to the fact that fruit contains fructose, which is a type of sugar that cannot be stored as muscle glycogen. You want to instead focus on starch or glucose based foods instead.
The second way to carb load is to skip the depletion phase and instead, just cut back on your training 3-4 days leading up to the event and aim to eat around 4 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight during the final three days prior to the event. Once again, keep your total fat content lower on these days to balance out the calories and prevent you from feeling too sluggish.
Either method will work however the second method will tend to produce less overall water retention in the athlete, so if you find that that is typically a problem with you, it may be the approach to use. It’s also a bit more of a straightforward approach as you simply increase your carbs slightly from your normal day to day diet, whereas the first approach will have you eating a dramatically different diet plan. That said, the first approach does tend to do a bit better of a job at really loading those carbs into your body and maximizing muscle glycogen stores.
So there you have some information on what carb loading is and who should do it. Experiment with it a few times if you participate in these endurance related events and soon you’ll find the perfect protocol to use for your body.
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